Woman preparing to leave work Worker preparing to leave work. Photo: Alan Cleaver / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Lindsey German on the rejection of the capitalist work ethic and why we need to talk about women’s rights

The strikes taking place this week will mark the biggest level of industrial action for over a decade and are part of a wave of industrial action which is helping create a new working-class movement in Britain. There will be picket lines and protests across the country which will bring together workers from rail, universities, schools and civil service. The Fire Brigades Union announces its own ballot results on Tuesday. So the strikes are growing and putting increasing pressure on the government.

One of the major issues highlighted by them is the shortage of workers in many of the industries concerned, especially acute in the health service and education. Doctors, nurses, teachers, midwives, and many other groups are drawing attention to the burden this puts on the existing workforce. There are many reasons for this: lack of training, restrictive immigration laws, early retirement, all contributing to a tight labour market. But there is also what is sometimes termed ‘the great withdrawal’ from work which has been marked since the onset of pandemic three years ago is causing major concern among Britain’s ruling class.

Again, the reasons for this are multiple: those who might be able to do some work are penalised by a regressive and parsimonious benefits system. Others are suffering from the consequences of Covid-19 or other illnesses, or from disability. Others still will be carers who devote their time to looking after children, the sick and disabled.

But it strikes me that there is much more to it than this. The Covid lockdowns had a profound effect on work patterns, and there has been no full return to ‘normal’. Many more office workers are working from home, at least for parts of the week, and those working in and around the City of London report that Mondays and Fridays are both much quieter than the days in between. Many older workers have also decided to leave the workforce altogether, and it is this troubling government and employers.

One aspect of the first lockdown was that many people in this sort of employment began to see work in a different way. Whatever the many downsides of social distancing, and the isolation of lockdown, it also meant a dramatic change in work: much less commuting, less expenditure on going to work, less stress as part of the labour process. The ‘withdrawal’ today is a reflection of people rejecting this aspect of work. It is also a rejection of the wider aspects of work under neoliberal capitalism: the intense supervision and management, the constant stress of meeting targets, appraisals, training, league tables, lengthy commutes (the British commute is the farthest in Europe).

In this, it mirrors the Saint Monday, when workers would deliberately take the day after Sunday off rather than work in factories or mills. The capitalist class spent a great deal of time in changing this attitude and instilling in the workforce the need to stick to the time clock and the calendar, as the great historian EP Thompson has illustrated.

The ruling class concerns itself over this because it breaks or weakens the profitable work-related industries: train use is lower than pre-Covid during the week, there are fewer commuters buying expensive coffee and sandwiches, or going to pubs after work, or needing work clothes. But there are also fewer direct opportunities to manage and control the workforce.

One thing that unites both these sets of workers and many of those now going on strike, who were on the frontline during the lockdowns, is that levels of pay are lower in real terms than before the financial crash of 2008. So in addition to the worsening conditions at work, they are expected to put up with these while their living standards fall dramatically.

I hope that the strikes are successful in their own terms, but I also hope they open up a much wider debate in society about work. That will mean challenging the priorities of the Tories (and Starmer’s Labour), but also fighting against a system based on the degradation of work as human labour, and on the exploitation which robs us of the wealth we produce.   

The ‘great withdrawal’ is a recurrence on a much deeper and broader social level of the anti-capitalist protests which first began round Seattle in the late 1990s. The rejection of the capitalist work ethic is a strong if inchoate expression of the desire for a better world.

Trans rights and women’s rights: time to talk

One of the most damaging aspects of the whole discussion around trans issues is the mantra that ‘there is no debate’. It is a view put by Stonewall, the influential LGBT rights organisation which provides advice and guidance to a wide range of institutions and businesses, and it is echoed by many on the left. It insists that anyone who raises questions about transwomen in particular must be silenced, and if they refuse to stay quiet then they are labelled ‘transphobes’ or ‘Terfs’ – trans exclusionary radical feminists.   

This approach is frankly nonsensical. It is absolutely obvious to anyone who cares to look around social or mainstream media that there is a raging debate, and it needs to be addressed. If we don’t do this on the left, we face the danger of ceding ground to the right. Already the far right and Tories see trans issues as a weapon in the culture wars. Rishi Sunak’s cabinet awayday last week resolved to campaign around trans in order to recoup some of its lost electoral ground.

What has brought the issue to a head this week is the case of a transwoman convicted of rape in Scotland before transition and whether she should be housed in a women’s prison. The decision to do so was quickly reversed under political pressure by Nicola Sturgeon and was backed by a range of those politicians and commentators who normally tell us that there can be no debate.

It was right to reverse that decision. Women in prison, already among the most vulnerable, should not face the threat of rape and their safeguarding should be paramount. If the prison service were not so violent, degraded and dehumanising, it should be possible for trans men and women to be housed in appropriate places where they don’t pose a threat and neither are they threatened.

However, this issue of a transwoman being a sexual threat to women prisoners was specifically raised in the context of the Scottish Parliament passing the Gender Recognition Act – and was dismissed. Now only weeks later it is conceded to be a real threat. I was shocked at the time at how safeguarding amendments to the bill were not only defeated but waved away in the most nonchalant manner, for example by saying that women were also under threat from violent attacks by other women, which may be true but kind of misses the point.

It is very upsetting for transwomen to be treated as sexual predators, since the vast majority are not, and simply want to live their lives in a way that suits them. We should respect and support their right to do so. But safeguarding isn’t mostly about what the majority do, instead it is an attempt to deal with situations which are rare but unacceptable.

There is no alternative to discussing some of these questions. There is wide support among women for trans rights in general, but much less so on specifics such as prisons or sporting competition. So there need to be solutions which respect both women’s rights and trans rights – and at present that doesn’t necessarily happen.

As a Marxist, I see women’s oppression as linked to their biology and also socially constructed through gender roles and systematic discrimination within class society. This is not bio essentialism or radical feminism, but the material reality. People might disagree with that analysis, but they have no right to treat others on the left as pariahs or oppressors. This is particularly distasteful when it comes from high profile male MPs and commentators who display a degree of misogyny in their attitude to women on this question.

Sexual and gender oppression arises from women’s oppression and their role in the family. It is possible to oppose all forms of oppression but there is no natural unity of the oppressed – it has to be fought for.

There is growing discontent over this question which can be channelled in a nasty direction if we’re not careful. Some universities are breaking with Stonewall over academic freedom and the right to hold different viewpoints. There are controversies over the Tavistock clinic and Mermaids. The right are seizing their chance here – we should not play into their hands by refusing to acknowledge reality, or by pretending that there is nothing here to discuss.

This week: I will be joining my UCU picket line and rally in Hatfield on 1 February, continuing to read the novel Radek by Stefan Heym, which brings that generation of Russian/German/Polish revolutionaries to life, and attending the Christopher Hill conference on Saturday to discuss revolution in the 17th century.

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

Tagged under: